The web has been around for more than 20 years now and it’s great for searching for most things, but it’s still lousy for finding local contractors.
Unless you live in a particularly tech-savvy place, perhaps, your Google search turns up a mishmash of links to local businesses plus some from Superpages, Angie’s List, Yellowbook and other aggregators. It’s a confusing mess, in other words, and you have no idea who actually can unclog your toilet quickly at the best price.
Google hasn’t focused on this problem much because it’s had bigger fish to fry. National advertisers bidding for keywords have thus far seemed a better source of revenues than the country’s estimated 30 million local contractors, many of whom are doing just fine without having to worry about SEO or even setting up a website.
But 30 million is a big number, which is why Angie’s List and Thumbtack, among others, have sought to monetize the market. As smartphone penetration soars over 60% though, perhaps those local businesses are finally embracing the digital revolution. “We’re part of a broad trend,” Thumbtack CEO Marco Zappacosta told me last month. “Tech and software is seeping out into the real world.”
While those sites take a walled garden approach, Google is now apparently considering at long last making those local hired hands more accessible on the web. A report in BuzzFeed this week was short on specifics, but said that Google plans to announce a new product that will better connect searchers to contractors in way “though it’s not yet clear how communication between the two parties occur.”
As the report notes, one possibility is that the new local search will be modeled on a new feature in Google Compare that lets you search auto insurance by entering your ZIP code. That’s a potential game changer, though Google is also known for having corporate ADD. Today it’s local contractors and self-driving cars. Tomorrow it’s balloons providing Internet access to the developing world.
Moz‘s David Mihm isn’t convinced that Google will be able to keep focus enough to make this particular project work. He told us in an email:
We’ve seen this story before with Google and the small business market. Tags, Offers, Punchd, TalkBin, Helpouts…the lineup of products geared at small business owners that have been either discontinued or left to wither on the vine is pretty long. I think Google looks at most of their entries into monetizing the SMB market as experiments.
In this case, I think Offers is the most relevant comparison: after Google’s offer to acquire Groupon fell through, it launched the product within a short matter of months (and with a lot of PR), only to shutter it completely within three years.
The on-demand services space is now almost as hot as the frenzy around daily deals a few years ago. Google probably feels they need a compelling offering to hold serve against increasing competition not only from Amazon (and likely Facebook), but also from Yelp, Thumbtack, and newer entrants. While the on-demand services market holds considerably more long-term promise than the daily deals market, I’m skeptical of Google’s long-term commitment to a serious standalone product in this space.
Amazon has a similar propensity for jumping into new markets without apparently thinking things through. It recently launched its own Home Services play. While Google counts on web surfers to search for a plumber, Amazon is adding services to the list of products. It’s hard to say which model is better: Will consumers be trained to Google a plumber like they Google the weather or will they mentally consider contracts a part of the commerce they take part in on Amazon?
Another question is how committed each will be to the hyperlocal market. As we’ve previously noted, the local market is maddeningly complex and there’s a strong possibility that Amazon and Google will disappoint. For the two companies, trying to become the source for local contractors are just the latest pawn in a much wider game of chess that includes cloud computing services and local deliveries.
As a consumer with an aging house who is frequently perplexed by the chasm between the world of technology in 2015 and my saggy plaster ceilings, I’m not taking sides. Ultimately I’m just hoping someone (be it Amazon, Google, Thumbtack or someone else) will figure out a system so that finding local services becomes easier for consumers.